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ELI5: The Birectifier

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Dear @bostonapothecary,

With respect to Reddit's "Explain like I'm 5" subreddit.  Gotta say... I don't fully understand the birectifier.  Can you ELI5?  I understand it's goal is to collect distinct fractions from a distillation run, but how/why is it different from a standard lab still?  In my previous career I worked in large pharma in projects collected mass spec guided fractions so I sort of get what's going on. But I feel a primer, guided toward distillers rather than MIT educated PhDs might be in order..

 

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Thanks for thinking about this @indyspirits. This seems worthwhile, but is something that I've struggled with because I didn't know exactly how the still works relative to others (in terms of theoretical plates and all that...). I've used a lot of other fractioning stills over the years, but none with such power. The birectifier went extinct because other proprietary designs like "spinning band" could do it better, but those are startlingly expensive and only owned by pharma and petro-chemical companies so the birectifier becomes relevant again because it is affordable.

For some reason, many distillers say why "wouldn't I just use GCMS?" The first answer is of course price and the second is interpreting the data. Distillers distill, they don't absorb (chromatography), so sorting congeners with intense reflux by distillation is eventually far easier to interpret and put the information to use. It is all about being actionable.

GCMS also has a lot of blind spots and the Caribbean distillers bemoan that it misses a lot in rum. They want to do more old school organoleptic sensory analysis with tasting panels. A yeast company I talked to mentioned they relied on GCMS but wanted an "olfactometry" mask for their unit because they knew they were missing important things. I guess you wear the mask, smell the output stream, and then click a button to mark novel character you smell.

The big takeaway is that expensive state of the art methods aren't exactly winning and there is a lot of merit in the clever ideas of the 1940's. They're relatively cheap and effective, but somehow got mostly banished from the text books.

When I found the design, I didn't know it would work. I simply thought at least one should exist because it was historical. It looked wacky and counter intuitive. I was very skeptical of an air cooled dephlegmator. I had also done similar fractioning on other stills. I was blown away by the early results. Only by experiencing the fractions did I realize how much better it was at sorting congeners than other designs. Each fraction is well delineated so you can turn around and make big decisions with the information.

Each time I operated it, I started to appreciate a little bit more about the design. A big one is control. You have to collect all your fractions at the same pace (throughput) or they won't be comparable. The design allows you do this with one variable, just the energy input (which I found a great controller to simplify), so the wacky air cooled dephlegmator started to make sense. Other designs that rely on water cooled dephlegmators don't do it so easily. When it is easy and consistent, you can delegate it to the interns... (I'm my own intern :). Other things started to make sense such as why you always put in 100 ml of absolute alcohol and how this number pushes everything to the right places. When you distill at the azeotrope, there is just a few milliliters of absolute alcohol left when you hit the 5th fraction and somehow that brief zone grabs all the high value congners and isolates them. Experiencing fraction 5 can be so absolutely wild.

So the big difference between other designs is superior congener sorting power and then ease of consistent operation so faithful comparisons can be made. It is hard to appreciate these points without experiencing it. Performance is at a level you can confidently make decisions based on what you experience.

The fractions are easy to interpret by smell and taste. Most small scale distillers, even with science backgrounds, don't want labs. They don't want "wet chemistry" and they don't want GCMS, but they still have to solve problems and figure things out. The birectifier allows that. You just sort stuff and cut stuff up then smell it and compare it to a role model. It is very much the way of our five year old selves. Sort, cut, smell. Sadly, it is homework.

Dave Pickerell said, "For some reason I can close my eyes and see molecules running around in a still, and I know where they’re going and why." This the goal, right? But we're only going to learn little bits of it at a time until we get there. I think the birectifier method is one of the purest ways of getting there. Smell things, put a face to name, and know where they are, when, and how they relate to quality.

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I think a way to sum this up more succinctly is that the design has especially high fractioning power, beyond most designs, but very importantly with a level of repeatable precision that decisions can soundly be based off of. You're not left wondering if there is really more of an isolated congener in sample A versus sample B, or rather, if it is because of how it was fractioned (inconsistent reflux, inconsistent throughput).

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This is really really great info guys.  I have been selling lab distillation equipment and other distillation equipment to another industry for a few years now and this is just what I've been looking for lately.  On a different note and I probably should not put it here, but did you guys know that there is someone making Vodka from CO2?  That's right he has developed a process for turning pollution (CO2) into ethanol using electricity. His wash has 20% ethanol in it.  It takes a 26 plate column to fraction out the nasties but the spirit is clean, pure and extremely neutral.  He just received his approval from the TTB.  It took him 3 years to get it, mainly because they were so skeptical about the formula and deriving ethanol from CO2.  Pretty amazing huh?

 

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The short of it: The biggest thing that the BiR does vs CGMS is that the BiR gives you a magnified experience of your spirit and not just an ingredients list. 

I've been following Stephen's work for several years, much like I assume other have also. Based on that this is my take on this without owning it: The BiR magnifies the organoleptic qualities of your spirit. I think that if you produce the same spirit repeatedly you could use it to notice drift. You could also use it to magnify differences if you were to change variables in your protocols - raw materials (vendors?), yeast, fermentation time/temp, cuts. 

I think to best realize what the BiR can do is for you to work with a craft distiller to setup experiments where you do minor changes to variables and record the results. Right now it's too amorphous and too many people don't understand what it can do since no one other than you has done anything with it significantly since Arroyo.  First up - brew the same wash with 5-6 different yeasts and everything else stays the same. Can you tell the difference in the final spirit? Can you tell the difference in the BiR output? Is it easier to tell the difference? 

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Stephen you are always welcome to come down if you want to put it into practice.

We have Pombe, we know funk.

The double retort should be up and running in a few weeks.

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I was hoping you would volunteer. I think you're best candidate for this. Stephen - please take him up on this offer. 

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9 hours ago, Silk City Distillers said:

Is there some sort of diagram that outlines how it actually functions?

What happens is vapor goes up the outside of the initial chamber into the air cooled dephlegmator. The liquid then condenses and crosses the vapor trap which looks sort of like a little bridge and then runs back into the inner rectifier. At the bottom of the inner rectifier is another vapor trap and this is important for equalizing the pressure. The vapor then ascends through the bulbs then exists into a condensor not shown. At the top are two thermometer ports which can show quite a differential implying a lot of refluxing.

I typically start the voltage regulator at 41 (41% of 115V) and typically end at 76 in the last fractions. Going from 41 to 42 can make a big difference in throughput so high end voltage regulation is very key. The reflux is also incredible to see. A little vapor phantom takes quite a while to creep up the column and a different kind of phantom creeps up again when you exhaust the ethanol and higher boiling point compounds appear. Condensation can tell a lot about how heavy a spirit is in the last fractions. Automation will have a PID correlated to throughput (not temp) so it will be able to operate at a pace even smoother than manual. It will also have really good data logging.

Slight pressure aberrations are more prevalent than you'd think. If you had too much energy input, such as when you're cleaning the still by running neutral spirits, you'll see bubbles being blown in the lower inner bulb.

We used modern threaded thermometer fittings and the joint for the condensor is a ball-socket style to reduce breakage. It should be at a 45 degree when setup properly or you'll restrict the opening and influence reflux, but I wanted more freedom for inexperienced operators when setting it up so its less likely to break.

1495099893_invertbirectifier.thumb.jpg.a4779f1158297ae3b9ba77579ffab2a8.jpg

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8 hours ago, Southernhighlander said:

This is really really great info guys.  I have been selling lab distillation equipment and other distillation equipment to another industry for a few years now and this is just what I've been looking for lately.  On a different note and I probably should not put it here, but did you guys know that there is someone making Vodka from CO2?  That's right he has developed a process for turning pollution (CO2) into ethanol using electricity. His wash has 20% ethanol in it.  It takes a 26 plate column to fraction out the nasties but the spirit is clean, pure and extremely neutral.  He just received his approval from the TTB.  It took him 3 years to get it, mainly because they were so skeptical about the formula and deriving ethanol from CO2.  Pretty amazing huh?

 

Are you selling to all the new "ethanol processors" out west? One of them flew to visit because he wanted a birectifier for lab scale extraction research.

I know synthetic ethanol has been known for quite a while, but there was a big industry wide agreement, I think due to prohibition, never to use it. I think they just didn't want to shake public trust in potable alcohol production. I've only ever seen little bits and pieces about it. It was a taboo.

 

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4 hours ago, Silk City Distillers said:

Stephen you are always welcome to come down if you want to put it into practice.

We have Pombe, we know funk.

The double retort should be up and running in a few weeks.

I need to take @Foreshot's advice and make it down. I'm about to move to Philadelphia so I'll be much closer. This project hasn't been easy. Reintroducing a still design takes many 100s of hours. I spent an insane amount of time on all the library work and translation. Developing automation has been quite intense and I have a big closet of failed equipment. Processing all the case studies was a big investment.

I hoped the initial purchasers would be new American distillers into simple things like making sure they were executing cuts properly and distilling at the peak potential of their ferments or developing a gin from scratch. What has come first is wild boundary pushing projects like aspiring to run 200 ferments with automation for a PhD dissertation (this project is quite beautiful), and of course the infamous "ethanol processors". A major university lab just made contact and they want to do a study about rum oil and possibly restart some of Arroyo's other work. Internationally, a few new projects that look like they're 10+ barrels a day are showing interest because they want a comprehensive analysis solution cheaper than GCMS and that can possibly better target fine spirits. A few of the new blender/bottlers want a tool to reverse engineer blends and learn more blending grammar, especially for rum.

I'm spending a lot of time working on yeast stuff with a microbiologist from Chicago. We are trying to crack the Pombe code and learn to collect more strains. It is very preliminary. I also found two historic rum strains theoretically available. One is from 1913 Jamaica, possibly even from Hampden and the other is from 1923 Batavia. Access at the moment is not the clearest, but I do have a plan. The birectifier would be key to testing yeasts.

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5 hours ago, Foreshot said:

The short of it: The biggest thing that the BiR does vs CGMS is that the BiR gives you a magnified experience of your spirit and not just an ingredients list. 

I've been following Stephen's work for several years, much like I assume other have also. Based on that this is my take on this without owning it: The BiR magnifies the organoleptic qualities of your spirit. I think that if you produce the same spirit repeatedly you could use it to notice drift. You could also use it to magnify differences if you were to change variables in your protocols - raw materials (vendors?), yeast, fermentation time/temp, cuts. 

I think to best realize what the BiR can do is for you to work with a craft distiller to setup experiments where you do minor changes to variables and record the results. Right now it's too amorphous and too many people don't understand what it can do since no one other than you has done anything with it significantly since Arroyo.  First up - brew the same wash with 5-6 different yeasts and everything else stays the same. Can you tell the difference in the final spirit? Can you tell the difference in the BiR output? Is it easier to tell the difference? 

It is sort of like scalpel meets stethoscope meets magnifying glass. When you isolate the congners you can do so much more organoleptically. I'd be skeptical of anyone that could taste a typical spirit and make a hard pronouncement. Spirits have a lot of mystery.

I think the first thing needed is to survey exemplary role models so it is known what is normal in each category. Most new American distillers I've surveyed are off on their cuts. When you compare yourself to a realistic role model, you can change distillation parameters to narrow the gap. The precision of the birectifier gives you confidence in the comparisons.

Once you're distilling at the peak potential of your ferment, anchored by role models, its time to get into yeasts, nutrients, raw material etc which is some absolutely vast territory. Fine wine makers have pursued nuance and improvement to the ends of the earth and eventually craft distilling will start to make those explorations. Because of practicality, the birectifier is likely the tool that will make the biggest difference.

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On 11/26/2018 at 7:25 PM, bostonapothecary said:

Are you selling to all the new "ethanol processors" out west? One of them flew to visit because he wanted a birectifier for lab scale extraction research.

I know synthetic ethanol has been known for quite a while, but there was a big industry wide agreement, I think due to prohibition, never to use it. I think they just didn't want to shake public trust in potable alcohol production. I've only ever seen little bits and pieces about it. It was a taboo.

 

   Yes, we have been selling large and small ethanol extraction systems as well as vacuum reclamation and oil concentration equipment to extraction facilities for some time now, through my other business Emerald Gold LLC.  We have a 500 gallon vacuum still at a hemp processing facility in Oregon that processes over 500 lbs of hemp per day into CBD oil.  We have a ethanol extraction and oil concentrating ethanol reclamation system that we are installing on Long Island New York that will process 12,000 lbs of plant material per day into oil for nutraceuticals.  We have around 35 larger than laboratory ethanol extraction systems at concentrates facilities all over the US.   We also sell laboratory extraction equipment including thin film rotary evaporators and falling film evaporators.  The great thing is that my stainless vacuum reclamation and short path vacuum stills will put out a finished product that is just as good as some of the products being produced in the small very expensive laboratory equipment

 

This is not the synthetic ethanol that was produced from petrochemicals.   Making ethanol from co2 was first done around 2016 at the labs at Oak Ridge TN.  The goal of the experiment was not to produce ethanol from CO2.  The ethanol was produced from CO2 by accident. 

Interestingly enough, the person who is producing this is actually getting the main ingredient from the fermentations of beer and wine and he could get it from corn fermentations and the fermentations of other grains or vegetation.  Also the end product tastes like a great Vodka.    What he is actually doing is reversing the combustion process of ethanol.  So the chemical reaction that is the combustion of ethanol produces CO2 and water.  He is producing ethanol from CO2 and water. Also the TTB has approved his formula so he is good to go.  I think it is fascinating.

 

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On 12/4/2018 at 12:58 PM, Southernhighlander said:

This is not the synthetic ethanol that was produced from petrochemicals.   Making ethanol from co2 was first done around 2016 at the labs at Oak Ridge TN.  The goal of the experiment was not to produce ethanol from CO2.  The ethanol was produced from CO2 by accident. 

Interestingly enough, the person who is producing this is actually getting the main ingredient from the fermentations of beer and wine and he could get it from corn fermentations and the fermentations of other grains or vegetation.  Also the end product tastes like a great Vodka.    What he is actually doing is reversing the combustion process of ethanol.  So the chemical reaction that is the combustion of ethanol produces CO2 and water.  He is producing ethanol from CO2 and water. Also the TTB has approved his formula so he is good to go.  I think it is fascinating.

 

This is quite exciting then. Any places I can read more about it? Awesome to hear your successes out West.

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